A Blue and White reporter reflects on the Veritas Forum
By Torsten Odland
I first encountered the Veritas Forum at Columbia during my freshman orientation in John Jay. While I was filling up a mug at the kitchenette two women in matching light blue t-shirts approached me asking something like, What do you believe is most important in this world?
They both had black hair, one held a clipboard, and though my room was only a few feet away they’d cheerfully boxed me out, so I thought about it for a while. And I tried to come up with something that wasn’t a joke. (I have no idea what I said.) After the leader of the pair recorded my answer on her clipboard, she paused for a second, considering me.
“You wouldn’t be a huge fan of David Foster Wallace, would you?”
I gaped. At the time that’s what I was, first and foremost. We chatted about Infinite Jest and how beautifully therapeutic it is.
Before they ran off looking for another unexpecting friend, they gave me the details regarding their weekly meetings. The whole exchange was fun in an abstract way, few people had ever asked me a “philosophy” question with such candor before. As you may have surmised, I like candor and philosophy.
Veritas Forum hosts weekly discussions in the freshman dorms. It’s not, as I had thought, a philosophy club. The first hint came at our first meeting, when the two blue-shirted men leading things on my floor started by calling on everyone to introduce themselves and their “worldview.” The worldview of the discussion leaders: Christian.
In the next two meetings I developed the eerie sense I was being manipulated. The topics for each session weren’t things I found terribly important: the compatibility of science and religion; debates about the existence of God. One night I went to the group’s national website and, in the “About” section, there it was: “We host university events that engage students and faculty in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life.”
Secret…evangelism? I reeled, probably whispering to myself. This whole time we’d been circling around Jesus? I never went to another discussion, until I began research for this article. Luke Foster, CC ’15, current president of Veritas, tells me that he’s heard similar stories before.
I was being closed-minded, prejudicial maybe, but not without principle. The quote above marks an important ambivalence in Veritas’ project: searching for answers to our fundamental questions on the one hand, and discussing the certainty of Christ’s relevance to human existence on the other. It struck me as either wrongheaded or insincere to maintain that a discussion group can accomplish both in the same way.
For Veritas Forum the unifying thread is a belief that, in both endeavors, the goal is to uncover true answers to what Foster calls the “perennial questions”. “Part of why we do what we do,” Luke explains, “is to invite people into rigorous, authentic dialogue with the real hope of finding truth…[Our approach starts with the assumption that] the truth is worth seeking after, because there really might be an answer.” Veritas means truth in Latin.
The reasoning behind my indignance was this: in a debate (or investigative discussion, what-have-you) where the truth of the matter is supposed to be a basis for agreement, truth needs to be something to which each party is willing to yield. That’s if the idea is supposed to have any significance. If we say that there’s no objective fact of the matter, or that we each can be beholden to contrary truths, this amounts to saying that “truth” is not what really we’re getting at. The truth that Veritas pursues is incontrovertibly truth in Christ, and they couldn’t change that without changing their purpose. No Veritas Forum will ever end with a mass conversion to naturalistic hedonism.
So the grounds of the conversation we’d been having in our meetings struck me as a little unfair. My experience figuring out what’s good and what’s bad, trying to understand other people, had (and has) been entirely godless, and though I liked pursuing the questions Veritas posed, I felt it wouldn’t get me any further to talk with someone who can’t but insist that I’ll find the answer in the Gospels. It’s not a conversation I was interested in having. (Even if I was thick-headed, the problem of communication here goes deep; in a basic way this is the issue I still have with all religions.) I wondered how they’d tricked me into it.
In the years since, I’ve realized I blinded myself to two things about Veritas. First of all, there’s no guile in anything they do. Every member I’ve ever sustained a conversation with has been perfectly frank about their faith and its importance to all aspects of their life. And Foster sees this as one of the strengths of Veritas’ approach. In our conversation, Luke suggests to me that the view-from-nowhere model of discussion, something like what I sketched above, “can stifle dialogue rather than promote it.”
“The fact is, everyone comes from some perspective, everyone has a worldview or, at least, deeply rooted assumptions.” Luke supposes, “In having this kind of dialogue we think it’s most honest and authentic to say, ‘Ok, we’re coming from where we’re coming from…But we think these are things everyone can care about, from their different perspectives.’”
Secondly: at Columbia, Veritas Forum emphasizes the “discussion” aspect of their mission more than the Jesus side. Their events in the past semester included a panel on how to sustain meaningful friendships in the professional world. And an open discussion about romantic relationships at Columbia. At its best, Veritas focuses on topics that have a universal point of entry. And though Foster isn’t shy about the group’s commitment to a Christian concept of truth, this doesn’t stop them from being perfectly pluralist in the conversations they arrange. “We have a long track-record of working with the Humanist Society, the Muslim Students Association, Columbia-Barnard Hillel, other groups.” Secret evangelism it is not.
At one of the discussions I attended, a group of twelve or so sat around in the lounge of John Jay 10 nibbling on cake. After two Veritas members gave a small exposition, we stumbled into a conversation about what Islam means. Unfortunately none of us were Muslim. There was some wonkiness—for one, Christianity was (apologetically) used as the standard of comparison, and the discussion often took the form: “My impression of Islamic practice is: ____.”
Still, all sorts of philosophies popped up, including a seminar-room atheist who detained us for quite a while: “Why would an omnipotent being demand worship? You’d think it wouldn’t have those insecurities!”
I was surprised to see so many students there this close to the end of the year. Though the proceedings weren’t exactly scholarly, the group had come together to discuss world religions for the fun of it. While others of us were playing guitar or writing cover letters, they were plumbing, as best they could, some spiritual depths. Who are they? I wondered.
The conversation I ended when I stopped going to Veritas is not something most of my friends are interested in having. At Columbia, I’ve encountered, broadly, two approaches to the “perennial” questions: those who believe that moral questions are ultimately social theoretical, and those who prefer to see the ridiculous in everything and laugh. Neither approach lends itself to inclusive, productive dialogue. When I closed the door on Veritas it was because I thought I couldn’t have a real conversation with them. I didn’t realize it would be harder with almost anyone.
In our talk, Foster describes “the assumption of irrelevance” as perhaps the biggest barrier to understanding between those with and those without faith. I think this assumption, more than any philosophical reason, is why I stopped going to Veritas. When I discovered their Christian affiliation, I decided I couldn’t learn anything from them, which is far more vile than any trickery I suspected on their part. Before I leave his suite, Luke invites me to call on him again. “You know this is the sort of thing I love to talk about.”